When I was a wee one, my parents had all sorts of funny ideas about what was good and what was bad for me to be exposed to. To wit, my first first-person-shooting experience was Jedi Knight II, the first five levels of which may as well have been a Quake 3 expansion pack. The gems of yesteryear passed me by, but I recently obtained as bonus extras the entire id gaming catalogue, and decided to have a go. Quake II often gets sandwiched between Quake(world) as the first major multiplayer shooting hit, and Quake 3 as the perfect distillation of that formula. So naturally, after sampling the rush of nostalgia Spear of Destiny provided me with (Jedi Knight II not actually my first first-person-shooter, perhaps), I rolled into the Quake 2 single player.
It’s a blast. There are maps, there are guns, there are health packs and ammo, and of course there are a near-endless supply of enemies. What quickly became apparent to me, despite the muddy graphics and occasionally awkward sound design (oh, and that by default the game still starts playing whatever audio CD you happen to have in) was that at a basic level, not much has changed. The plethora of health packs round every corner start to approximate regenerating health, a cover system is a mere substitute for a well-placed crate to hide behind, and though the current trend is for modern warfare games throwing hordes of indistinct Middle-Easterns at you rather than alien mechanoids, the ways in which you dispatch them remain roughly the same.
Those enemies are where the modern shooters could learn a thing or two, really. Nearly every new enemy raised a deserved “What the hell is that?” from me, most notably a large boxy one two humanoids wide, with tank tracks for legs and a Robocop head. Magic. Most importantly though, while these new enemies were quickly dispatched (I am a pro), they upped the tempo of battle in a way modern shooters have a lack of. There’s a certain quickening of the pulse associated with them, a xenophobic fear. Each new enemy is wrong. This is something Call of Duty really lacks. Gimmick battles against snipers or grenade launchers don’t really do it. Even Half-Life 2 fails in this regard, with the Strider battles being so prepared that they don’t inspire this casual fear of the unknown. Modern games telegraph their new enemies so heavily that to find an eldritch horror like this baby:
What the fuck is that?
Isn’t something you have to remain in constant fear of. Halo had at least a slice of this in its first installment with the Hunters, big bulky fellows with an obvious weak spot, but even they were usually sent in on their own.
I have a minor confession to make: the reason I haven’t played Braid until now, or felt the urge to pick it up until recently, has nothing to do with the platform gameplay or the ‘pretentious’ plot or any of that. No. It’s Tim.
Look at him. What’s he wearing? That’s not even a suit, it’s a blazer. His grey trousers look stupid and no-one should be performing platform actions in shoes that business-like. I hate Tim, the protagonist of Braid, with a burning passion. Why is he smiling? His time-bending life is filled with loss and despair! Stop smiling! Stop it, Tim! Let’s not get into the topic of his hair parting.
Eventually, two years gone by, I have managed to overcome this basic disagreement with Braid’s philosophy to the point where I played the damn thing, and while the novelty of a 2D platformer with high production values carries even less weight now than it did back in 2009, it’s still a corker.
The plot didn’t strike a chord with me not because it was ‘pretentious’ - more games should have pretensions - but because it didn’t seem very tight. I was never quite sure of what story was being told, and the connection between disparate elements like the storybooks, the game levels, the dinosaurs who inform you of news of the Princess and the house you fill with jigsaw puzzles was weak at best. This doesn’t devalue the game’s ‘twist’, if you can call it that, which remains a masterful use of the game’s conceits. It just didn’t move me emotionally. I never really wanted Tim to get his Princess, and I wasn’t sure if the game was encouraging me to do so.
Braid’s main ‘feature’, the time travel, is excellent. It’s fun to play with, never feels like it makes the game easy, and solving puzzles with it makes you feel really clever. I’m not convinced of the game’s laissez-faire attitude to teaching you about it though. It comes into it’s own with the repetition of the level “The Pit”, but to begin with I just felt slightly abandonned, especially with some of the more technical puzzles in the first world. That you can skip them doesn’t excuse the problem. While we’re here, naming the first world ‘World 2’ with no sign of World 1 in sight is disorientating as well. One gets the feeling that mid-game aesthetics were given priority over early-game comfort, which is rarely a good trade and could have been worked around.
It was lots of fun though. Won’t make me stop hating Tim though. Stupid face.
It’s rare that a game manages to prove my opinion on it wrong, but it does happen, and Fear is Vigilance managed it. I was convinced that what was keeping my playing was the fun narrative and cute visuals, but once I had completed the plot the arcade mode kept me playing for 76 more beatings. As an aside, ranking you in terms of ‘beatings delivered’ is something Zeno Clash should definitely attempted.
There’s just something delightfully fun in how straight Fear is Vigilance plays it’s ridiculous concept out: clearly the game was born from the single idea ‘What if you beat people up so they would accept your free personal alarms more?’ and it immediately brings out a smile. Having half the game be you actually attempting to hand out the alarms, rather than the more obvious choice of having the exposition done in a cutscene, is really entertaining - and the point made halfway through about people’s willingness to give endless amount of small change to charity without absorbing any of the message being given is very relevant.
It wouldn’t work half as well without the mechanics being the well-oiled success they are though. It’s simple fare, movement and two buttons, but you don’t move too slow and it’s not easier than it should be to get on the floor, having the crap kicked out of you. In addition, one of the arcade stages is on an ice rink and you can charge people. All games should have this.
As you’d expect given the name, ‘These Robotic Hearts of Mine’ tugs at the heartstrings. That’s not something to dismiss lightly in a cog-turning puzzle about aligning hearts vertically, which more than anything reminds me of this goofy thing I played with as a child:
The story is told using inter-level snippets of text, which just slightly correspond to the level design which follows. It’s slightly corny stuff, the tale of a boy, a girl and a robot they find and how they get on, but it’s the right scale of plot for a flash puzzle game - reading walls of text between levels would kill the atmosphere entirely.
And what an atmosphere. The game practically crackles with an air firstly of young love, and later impending tragedy. The relation between level design and plot is a genius touch, the emotional impact of which cannot be overstated. Towards the end of the level set I felt anguish at completing the puzzles, given what they represented to the plot.
If I had to offer one criticism, it would be that an empty cog left unused in the solution, occasionally symbolic of a third person in the room, is the gaming equivalent of Chekhov’s gun - you want to find a use for it, especially as turning it counts towards the high-score turn counter. Even once you’ve realised the significance of the plot device, it feels wrong. Perhaps giving each empty cog a single lonely heart to align would work.
Overall though, the game is a huge success, earning a level of gravitas which avoids feeling a little sterile in the way ‘One Chance’ for instance did for me. Apparently what I’ve played is far from the finished item, so I’ll be interested to see where it goes.
A special place in hell is already reserved for developers who have unusually short kill drops in a platform game, but I think there must be a special subsection of even more terror in that already small portion of hell, reserved for the developers of games which not only have unusually short kill drops, but also an extensive range of puzzles involving flipping yourself long distances using a bouncy pad. Dante would approve.
There is genuinely a sense playing And Yet It Moves that the developers having finished the game, didn’t bother letting anyone else have a go. Creator blindness explains all the issues I had with the game, chief among them the rage-inducing kill drop. In And Yet It Moves, you have control over gravity. You can rotate or flip it to make your character fall where he needs to be. He cannot though move more than six inches in one particular fall lest the impact crush him into pieces. Unless he’s been on one of those mind-boggling jump pads where you can’t even work up a bounce with the jump key: you have to flip gravity, get a six-inch drop, flip back and use the momentum from that to bounce you. It’s nonsensical.
The graphical design is pleasing on the eye, although the animation of the main character wants to be charmingly shoddy. It comes off actually shoddy, especially when he falls apart another bastarding time.
First-person melee combat is a sadly underdeveloped practice. While it doesn’t naturally lend itself to keyboard and mouse control like first person shooting does, one would expect more attempts like Zeno Clash at cracking this mysterious egg of fun.
Zeno Clash has it where it counts: The punches connect, and connect hard. Each one is a solid thump, and the intuitive dodging mechanism makes you feel like a devilish little sneak each time. Like Hammerfight, single combat is a visceral thrill, if a little easy - glowing orange fruit replenishes your health, but your foes seem unaware of it.
Also like Hammerfight though, the developers seem unsure of their baby. The combat is constantly mixed up, to varying degrees of success. The first time you fight the Hunter, a blind sniper who ‘sees’ you through the affections of explosive squirrels, is a novel affair. The second time feels like an unwelcome rerun, especially as it is immediately followed by a third fight which is actually quite novel.
The ‘tank’ fights, where you are forced to use sticks and hammers in order to damage larger creatures feel simplistic and dumbed-down compared to the regular combat, although the satisfying crunch of the hammer blows means I can’t be too harsh on them. The occasional ‘fight some animals’ sections however bring forth shadows of Daikatana.
If these sections feel like padding, the game is nonetheless very short, which is a shame because there is an interesting world constructed with original character design. The fire-staff section stands out as particularly neglected.
The experience was on the whole enjoyable, and Father-Mother with his constantly shifting pronouns was genuinely quite a creepy bastard up until the end. Nightmare fuel.
There is a distinct genius in the mechanics of Magicka, a problem the developers very wisely avoided. That is, the magickas themselves. The spell-creating system Magicka employs allows for a large number of possible spell combinations and it would have been all too tempting to simply make the magickas, once learned, fit into this system somehow - force people to explore the spell options in order to find them. The actual system, using both the spell combinations and a special ‘Magickas’ button, is far superior.
Why? To maintain mechanical clarity, of course. The spell combinations in Magicka are deliciously predictable. With a little preparation, you can anticipate what almost any combination will do, and draw something up on the fly. The magickas are icing on this cake, special case scenarios allowed their own special graphics and effects, but they are at a fundamental disconnect with the combinations system.
If Magicka has a failing, it is that the majority of the combinations are somewhat under-powered - the lightening/evil/steam combination dwarfs the rest in effectiveness in the late game. A super area-of-effect rock attack, perhaps, might give cause to consider another option. The competition for attention is rarely between the combinations and the magickas, though. They complement each other, like a traditional sword/bow mix in other action-role-playing-games.
Poor finances compelling me not to purchase the game proper, I am left with the option of reviewing the game demo. Fortunately, it’s a cracker. The demo of Bastion is a somewhat off-kilter role-playing game in the Diablo (action) lineage. There are weapons, you press buttons to use them, enemies fall before you in droves. The enemies are plentiful enough to be identified in droves.
The demo of Bastion looks gorgeous. Pixel art writ large, warm and colourful. If a criticism can be put against it, it is that from a distance detail can be lost. This is not uncommon in PC gaming though - I tried playing Assassin’s Creed from my bed last night and found that the interface was a lot smaller than I remembered, and had to crawl back into my gaming chair. I own a gaming chair.
If the demo of Bastion needed to be reduced to a single selling point, it is the glorious voiceover narration, which brings to mind GlaDOS in Portal 2 Co-op. A character in himself, the narrator guides you along, offering advice and pithy comments - ‘Kid just rages for a while’ - I was! Game developers should be wary of putting large yet finite amounts of destructibles in their games, lest players like me spend hours hacking down each one in the mistaken belief that they are doing something worthwhile.
The fighting is enjoyable, with distinctive weapons and abilities. I imagine if I were to continue into the full game I would get more out of it. It’s always frustrating though to be using an analogue stick and yet be limited to shooting at discrete angles. The shield seems to function as some sort of a lock-on, which alleviates this somewhat. The demo did not explain this though. Bad demo of Bastion!
I will admit it: I’m not a huge fan of League of Legends. It’s playable enough, sure, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning, and I’m fairly sure it was the awkward transition from the windowed marketplace/lobby to the fullscreen game. Developers: pick a size and stick with it. Also of mild concern was the inability to zoom out further than about five inches from your character’s back, to obtain a more general view of what’s going on. C’est la vie: these are not game-killing issues.
What kills League of Legends for me is the community. It seems to be a running problem for all these DOTA-alikes: I’ve never heard the surrounding community of any of them referred to as less than ‘aggressive’. League of Legends is a game in which you are obliged to pull your weight; poor performance leads not only to mockery from the enemy team, but abuse from your own. Possibly even an encounter with the game’s draconian discipline system - most prominently, there are large, instant penalties against leaving a game, for any reason. Even leaving the opening lobby is disallowed - you receive up to a 3 minute ban for dropping out before the game has even started. The rants on the official forum recurringly feature a single phrase: ‘wasting time’. A player leaving after 30 minutes is considered to have wasted 30 minutes of each of his teammates’ time.
Now I’m old fashioned, but I never considered a game in which I lost to be a waste of my time. Even the games I lost due to circumstances out of my control; maybe it’s a product of many years spent playing Counter-strike Source at 12fps, or length Age of Empires games where a connection blip could shatter the fragile network of connections keeping everyone together. It happened. The fun of the game was in playing it, not necessarily in winning. Some of the best memories I have are of losing a game, epic efforts to cling onto life in the face of an overwhelming foe, etc, etc.
League of Legends seems to reject this entirely, but it’s not the people playing who are rejecting it. There’s something very creepy about hearing the language of the game creep into your social circle. Phrases like ‘If we aren’t going to surrender, can we at least try to win’ being uttered over team chat. After a particularly close loss the other day, one of my friends exclaimed ‘Well, I just wasted an hour of my time’ and left. It was chilling. Like that part in Lord of the Rings where the Frodo refers to the ring as precious. Where does this stuff come from? Is it in the water?
The simplest conclusion to be drawn then, is that the DOTA archetype is creating this monster. There is something in the model which naturally conveys people into this world of being deeply concerned with other people’s performance.
To pick an simpler version of what I’m talking about, consider the auto-sniper in Counter-strike. Now, Counter-strike is a very finely balanced game, working off years of experience. The auto-sniper is considered a balanced tool in that toolset and it is not restricted in professional competitions. Yet, as all Counter-strike players know, the auto-sniper is not to be used. There is a stigma attached to it, and it can be anything from other player’s complaints to being banned from the server for using it. Often the gun is restricted by use of a server mod - or, most tellingly by judacious use of the voteban command.
What is occuring here is a social response to in-game inbalance. The auto-sniper is not impossible to counter, but doing so requires either a large amount of skill, or an element of teamwork - both in short supply on public Counter-strike servers. In the face of this imbalance, a social strategy naturally forms: agree not to use the auto-sniper. The prisoner’s dilemma isn’t applicable here, because were everyone to use the auto-sniper, the game would fall apart - and indeed, if you’ve ever been on a server with no admin and no voteban with someone who is unbalancing the game, the server rapidly empties. The players are driven to balance the game, not win it. The use of tools like voteban and the social conditioning towards not using certain strategies have become part of the Counter-strike meta-game.
So where does this leave League of Legends? If you check the League of Legends website, the word which sticks out time and time again is ‘competitive’. This is a competitive game. It is a five-man team game which utterly requires a five man team to beat. The game has very few maps used (2) - the explanation is that they take too much time to balance. Indeed, League of Legends’ primary map Summoner’s Rift is near-perfectly balanced, but from beneath as well as above - not only is it near-impossible for one five-man team to get an unbreakable hold on the map, it is near-impossible for a four-man team to get any kind of hold on the map. If you lose a player, you lose the game. Losing a player is the ultimate imbalance in League of Legends. So like we see in Counter-strike, social pressures come in to fill the gap. Keeping the team together becomes part of the game itself - even the most important part, given the certainty of loss it entails. As players learn the game and its strategies, this one above all imprints itself into them, learned from both experience and the confirmation of other players: You must not leave. Part of the game.
This is doubly confirmed by Riot Games’ actual meta-game structures. Whereas on Counter-strike the server mods which codify the social rules are optional, in League of Legends pressure from the player base has caused the developer to enforce that no-one quits: the aforementioned draconian bans, as well as a ‘Tribunal’ in which players can present their case that other players were not taking the game seriously enough. In addition, the ranking system tries to ensure that players with different levels of skill are divided. In the end, the clue was in the constant complaint: ‘wasting my time’. From the player’s perspective, playing League of Legends with a player less, or just a player less skilled, breaks the meta-game rules. It is akin to the emptying Counter-strike server, except it only becomes clear that one player is going to kill everyone with the auto-sniper 30 minutes into the round.
How would I fix this? It would perhaps be mediated by allowing mid-game joins - even with different champions. It would be less competitive for sure, but then it is just a game. Otherwise, any attempts to patch over this like the aforementioned Tribunal are doomed to fail. The problem is systemic.
I was a big fan of BIT.TRIP BEAT and I’ve been trying to tactfully ignore the fact that it has about five prequels and sequels for a while now; for the sake of my relationship with the developer, you understand. Fortunately for me, they deigned to release one of the better reviewed entries on PC: BIT.TRIP RUNNER.
It’s a dog. Despite lacking BEAT’s 15 minute levels, it somehow manages to up the frustration levels even higher. Levels must be flawless. Flawless! I started playing with a 360 pad, but I’m worried that the soft touch buttons are causing me to fail. That’s the kind of game RUNNER is.
Unfortunately, it lacks a lot of the fun of the original. The shorter, less forgiving levels make it a lot easier to put down than it’s predecessor - there isn’t the same investment in each playthrough, the same desperation. Permitting no mistakes paradoxically lowers the tension, as you can no longer succeed by the skin of your teeth. You either win, or lose. It’s a bold choice, but it doesn’t quite pay off.
Driving games don’t have a huge deal of appeal to me. I’ve put off learning real driving so long that to do it in a pretend environment seems like turning down butter for margarine. It takes a driving game with a sense of fun to get through to me, and really Burnout Paradise is the only one to get it right. I want my driving smooth, fast and without too many sharp turns.
One thing which is not smooth, fast or lacking in sharp turns is the Dirt 3 menu screen. Just give me a list, please. Not this tetrahedrons-floating-in-a-white-void stuff, where I have to observe each menu for up to 10 seconds before I’m permitted to use it. Just a list.
Dirt 3 has very little of what attracts me in driving games, and I can’t imagine I’d ever have spent money on it. Fortunately AMD gave me it for free. It’s a Rally game, all planned corners and learning the track. The cars drive fast and the handling hurts my paws, clenched tightly round the 360 controller as they are. It looks stunning, and there’s a quirky Sands of Time-style rewind feature which my brother assures me isn’t original. I found it very helpful at patching over the occasions on which I pulled out a barrel roll.
The game has a poor sense of speed, though. It always mystified me why, in driving games, the 30-40 mph consistently lacks any kind of intensity. I know it’s not very fast, but it feels lifeless, dead. Eh, I guess this is why people speed in real cars.
The ‘role-playing’ mantra in ‘computer role-playing game’ is a
neglected carry-over from pen and paper role-playing games such as
Dungeons & Dragons, the direct predecessors of the CRPG. A ‘role-play’
is a casual bout of acting, seen outside the gaming arena mainly
either in the bedroom, or in awkward dinnertime murder mysteries. The
concept is simple: each person present offers up a character who
interacts with other characters present to form a short story, often
silly. In CRPGs however, the role-playing element has gradually
atrophied. In the interest of not defining the character before the
player gets to them (and of course, making the writer’s job easier),
figures such as Shepard from Mass Effect have gradually become blank
slates onto whom the player is meant to project their own impression.
This has lead to a puzzling condition in modern CRPGs: given a blank
slate, the character poured in by the player is themselves.
This condition is at its most evident in the Dragon Age 2 homosexual
controversy, where the correspondence between Hawke and the player
lead to a number of players taking the fact that Hawke was open to
homosexual relationship as a personal slight - the claim was, ‘we are
not being catered for’. It may as well be put ‘I cannot make the
character into myself’. At a guess, I would lay the cause of this with
the decreased popularity of pen and paper role-play among gamers. It’s
not that the audience can’t role-play other characters - simply that
they don’t know why they would want to.
The ultimate contrast to this approach is found in games like the
recent Dungeons of Dredmor: rogue-likes, infamous for their
unforgiving difficulty, have always had to address the issue of
disposable characters. The character cannot be ‘you’ if he’s going to
depart this world in the next five minutes. With a high character
turn-over, the impulse is naturally to give fresh traits to the
dungeoneers: This one obtained a large sword and killed many. He will
be a hero. This one ran from his foes because he was wearing no
clothes. He will be a coward. The player and the character are
distinct once again, and it’s a lot of fun.
Of course, permadeath is the only acceptable option. There shouldn’t really be a button, but this is meant to be an accessible game. It isn’t (accessible), but fortunately it’s so much fun that it doesn’t seem to matter. The baffling crafting system and useless random loot drops just blend into the irreverent charm, like coming across a monolith with no obvious use beyond ‘The Monolith glares back at you’. I tried hitting it with a bone club.
Disposable characters are an institution of rogue-likes, and as the difficulty menu informs you ‘dying is fun’. The relationship between player and character is shifted significantly - in a traditional role-playing game, a Dragon Age or a Mass Effect, the main character easily slips into being ‘you’. In Dungeons of Dredmor, it is harder to impose yourself into the character, because that would mean confronting the fact that ‘you’ are the one dying. It’s not a fear of dying, but a fear of loss, a self-preservation. After all, if you can’t stay alive in this virtual scenario, you wouldn’t be able to make it in real life. No-one wants a game to give them the message ‘in war you would die’ - consider the bullet-sponge characters in Call of Duty. Being cut away from all this allows the characters in Dungeons of Dredmor to take on a life of their own in a more traditional role-play. You assign character to the little scamp, be it an affection for cheese or a desire to dress in the stylings of a professional mage-ninja-poet. And if they died disarming a Shoddy Dwarven IED, so be it. That is the end of their story.
It is rough around the edges in ways forgivable considering the standard rogue-like, but below par for a professional product - a handful of clothing textures would have been nice, and some voice work for the opening spiel. It doesn’t get in the way of the fun, though.
Hammerfight is a game about swinging hammers, and the control system is sincerely of more concern than anything else to do with the game. The only thing which rivals it is the difficultly curve, for which I guess they googled ‘curve’ and ended up with a negative bell curve, because the game is irritatingly hard at the beginning and end, while pleasant and airy in the middle.
The control system is ingenious and appalling in equal measure: control is succinctly concentrate in the mouse hand, but the mouse movement is slugging and tiring to the wrist. Swinging the hammer often feels like a trial of endurance more than anything.
The one-on-one ship combat is a lot of fun, so it’s a shame that it’s thrust aside so often for odd mini-games, like the weird football surrogate ‘hammerball’. They’re just not as fun, not even nearly, and I found myself willing my opponent to beat me so I would get more of the same, rather than another horrible mini-game.
The beginning of one later level required me to jump straight to a hammer, as I was otherwise weaponless. It did not let you pick up the hammer until a certain point in the on-going conversation, despite the hammer being just there. The developer needs to be beaten with a stick until he realises just how irritating this is. Especially as the ground beneath the hammer explodes just before you’re allowed to pick it up, so you can’t even rest by it. Ugh.
The second issue of PC Gamer I ever bought was #73, the Tiberian Sun issue. This was my introduction and my brother’s introduction into the world of video game journalism, and the idea that you could avoid duff game by deferring to the opinion of someone else. It was of course an illusion even then, as my friend’s copy of Rise of the Robots for the SNES attested to. Even so, Tiberian Sun was a good game and arguable the first ‘hardcore’ game I was exposed to. The FMV wowed my youthful mind, and to this day a friend will still scream ‘Not in my world!’ at me.
Tiberian Sun was followed up by Red Alert 2, but then the death knell rang for the 2D RTS. After that, the siren song of mediocre first-generation 3D graphics filled the ears of game developers everywhere, and the art of isometric pixel-pushers like Age of Empires and Tiberian Sun was lost from the world. I’m being dramatic and inaccurate of course, it didn’t really happen like that. And Age of Empires is still hanging around, though I’ve personally played it to extinction. Isometric 2D went out of fashion, anyway.
And that was a bad thing, because the death of 2D RTS caused loss for more than just my overactive nostalgia gland. The death of the 2D RTS caused the loss of an essential sense of solidity that until then the genre had taken for granted. 2D games necessarily operated on a grid of some size, mainly to simplify the programming side of things. Working with a 3D engine, the restriction of the player to such a grid was less necessary, and while a snap-to system usually remained, the overall effect was a more fluid landscape and less solidity of gameplay.
The best way to describe this is through imagery. Take this image of Age of Empires:
Consider the base, and what it is composed of, and where these things are in relation to each other. Consider how you would bring the troops in and attack such a base. Now, take this image of the ‘spiritual successor’, Empire Earth:
Consider the same features again. Note that Empire Earth still has a visible grid - look at that jagged coastline. But the distance between those castles - how far is that? That stone - is that a lot of stone?
The same thing again, with two generations of Command and Conquer:
C&C3 has obviously progressed in this sense from Empire Eath - the sense of solidity is returning. But it has nothing on Tiberian Sun, where what is possible is pinned down.
This sense of solidity is derived from the implied possibility of a 3D engine. A 2D RTS is very structurally two-dimensional. The gameplay and the graphics are are one-to-one mapping: every possible ‘move’ in the game has a possible ‘move’ on the map, and every possible ‘move’ on the map is a move in the game.
This is not the case in a 3D RTS. 3D engines, for all their differences, are generics. The 3D engine from Timesplitters 2, where you cannot jump, could feasibly recreate the gameplay of Halo, where you can jump. The engine has possibilities the game does not. This is concerning, as anyone who has ever encountered a knee-high fence in a game which does not allow jumping has found out, but in a RTS it is catastrophic. Generally, the camera in a 3D RTS will be quite flexible, but most share at least one major flaw - an inability to look upwards. This is terrifying, because we know that the engine is capable of rendering an attack from above - we do not trust the engine and the mechanics to be one and the same anymore. What is on screen at any one time is not necessarily all that is happening. Buildings are now capable of obscuring enemy units incidentally, rather than intentionally. This sweeps the ground out from underneath us, leaving us floating in an uncertain void. RTS games have been desperately clawing themselves back from this void for the last ten years.
A notable success, while it isn’t quite a RTS, is Civilization 4. Despite being 3D, the game does a very good job of informing us of what is and isn’t possible. There’s even some theater - zooming out all the way gives us a faked globe view where the whole sky is visible. We are safe at least, from attack from above.
Minecraft is a difficult game to evaluate because the entirely of it’s appeal is taken in at face value: There are blocks, and you build with them. Like legos. It’s less the appeal of a game in particular and more the appeal of the artistic process. You make things. The survival mode is all well and good, but it’s not ‘Minecraft’. The building is ‘Minecraft’, the survival mode is a game inside the system, it isn’t the system itself. It’s like building sandcastles on the beach, then constructing an inner narrative about battling the relentless tide until you’re finally overcome. It’s a fun game, but it’s as much a construction as the sandcastle itself was.
I’m a tentative fan of Telltale’s adventure games, chiefly just to my overactive nostalgia gland having latched on to Day of the Tentacle at some point in the 90’s and not having let go since. Adventure games are in my blood, dammit, even if my claim to be their biggest fan is let down by a barrel of glaring omissions.
My claim to be a huge fan of Back to the Future is similarly shifty. I’ve only seen the latter two once, maybe. I don’t even remember the third that well - there was a train? When Doc pipes up in this one to explain where the DeLorean had come from after the one in the film was destroyed, I felt suitably ashamed - and that’s a good thing, I think. The games feel sufficiently like part of the canon that my fan gland (next to the nostalgia gland; ask a doctor) was itching at all the little details.
The puzzles haven’t been exactly taxing. They’re standard use-the-chicken-on-the-pulley adventure game fare. At one point, I used the hint system and received only things I had already deduced. The problem I was having turned out to be solved by standing in one area for about five minutes. A little contrived.
Deus Ex is a very special game, something distinguished by the fact that subsequent games have by and large failed to capitalise on its successes. The recent spate of action-RPGs go some way to follow Deus Ex down the now-overgrown path, but it’s too little too late in many ways. The culture of gaming has been allowed to set in considerably less interesting shape. To make a Hollywood analogy would be oversimplifying greatly so I shan’t, but the fact remains that the legacy of Deus Ex has been as a firework, rather than a flashpoint.
It would be ignorant to say that nothing interesting is currently happening in gaming. Something like Deus Ex though is still difficult to find. The upcoming sequel looks promising, but it is not rare for a bad game to look promising. The combination of relatively high production values and genuine artistic merit remains striking, in the face of soulless kitsch like Call of Duty’s pathetic airport massacre level.
It is important therefore to look at what makes Deus Ex; it is not a game which on the surface has much going for it. A near-useless tutorial and first mission which drops you in at the deep end have put many people off even attempting it, but the consistent outcome for those who involve themselves in the game and the game’s assets is a fondly-remembered great game.
Is it the hilarious voice acting? The wooden character models and charity-shop textures? The hammy plot about old men running the world? Invisible War had all these in abundance and more, and that was a terrible blight on the world. At least Invisible War had the good grace to take ‘universal ammo’ with it when it died. Ugh.
Deus Ex’s single strongest aspect above even the non-linear mission structure, is the sense of place. Every level of Deus Ex *is* Deus Ex to such an extreme that when you first boot up Invisible War, you’re sledgehammered with how much it is *not* Deus Ex. The opening cinematic of Invisible War, which manages to out-ham the infamous Bob Page-Walton Simmons exchange in the original, is unremittingly terrible. The single worst aspect of it, though, is not the atrocious shaky-cam or sub-Half-Life scientist deaths. The worst aspect is the moment as helicopters fly in over Seattle, where the main theme of Deus Ex comes in on strings. The music is accordingly one of the defining features of ‘being Deus Ex’. Like a classic John Williams theme, the Deus Ex music catches the ear and instantly places us. So when it rolls in over those gleaming helicopters, it is so alien, so distant from events on screen. It falls so far from the triumphant return the director presumably intended, to form a grim omen of things to come. It inspires dread, like seeing a favourite children’s TV presenter being huddled into court. The familiar, profaned.
Also central to this question of place is the voice acting. While unquestionably terrible, it strongly evokes a certain atmosphere. Like biplanes belong to First World War dogfights and six-shooters belong to Westerns, monotone voice acting belongs to Deus Ex. While we are in the game, our mouthpiece (JC) has the monotone voice. Our brother, Paul, has the monotone voice. Our boss, our workmates, our enemies. Monotone voice. They sound nothing like real people, of course, but they sound everything like Deus Ex people. Think of classic voice acting: Darth Vader instantly evokes Star Wars. The Daleks instantly evoke Dr. Who. The endless torrent of youtube remixes attests to the fact that the voice samples have near-infinite potential. All the way from ‘What a shame’ to ‘Oh my god JC, a bomb!’, the voices mode-shift you into a very particular Deus Ex way of thinking.
The wooden character models, unlike the voice acting, are just terrible. Running in Deus Ex looks ridiculous, like a poorly made puppet. No-one can defend this. Human Revolution will probably have slick, modern standards for both the animation and the texturing, but only one of these is necessarily a postive. In a classic case of art from adversity, the limitations of the Deus Ex art team contribute greatly to the aesthetic. The fact is that if anything, Deus Ex performs convincingly as a dirtier version of today. The gamma is cranked low to cover the slightly shit textures, but the atmosphere only gets raised. Slightly more trenchcoat, slightly less Statue of Liberty, but above all very similar to the present. There are robots hanging around but they’re incidental and a bit crap, just like real robots. There are ridiculous things like the plasma rifle and the tiny plasma pistols, but they aren’t really game-changers. They’re well within the realms of ‘sat in that warehouse from Indiana Jones because no-one wants to spend money making it work’. As the plot unfolds and we’re introduced to slightly more out-there elements like the Greasels and the Dragon’s Tooth sword, we’re comforted by how well they blend into this world of greys and blacks. Just as the monotone voice acting covers up the ridiculous dialogue, the consistently grim texturing bridges the gap between the real world and this fantasy.
The backstory of Deus Ex, as told in the design manual, includes details like part of the US sinking beneath the sea or something. It becomes abundantly clear that Deus Ex was intended to be a little more futuristic than it turned out; a blessing. Deus Ex is so day-after-tomorrow that it feels glued onto today. Invisible War lacks this grip, and despite their best attempts the game feels fake, sci-fi. A cut-off from Total Recall rather than an embellished shard of Terminator.
As it stands, a lack of universal backstory aids the game immensely. In a game like Morrowind for instance, the weight of lore is carried to the dot in the endless textbooks you find everywhere in the game. The effect of such text is actually counter to the original purpose: rather than expanding the scope of the world, making it feel larger, the scale-model mythology shrinks the world. A dedicated player could learn everything about the world of Morrowind in a few months at most - a snow-globe world. Much more effective is to leave gaps, not just gaps the player character happens to handily fill in through the course of the plot, but genuine not-answereds. In the absence of a token backstory, the seeds of a larger world can be planted. Deus Ex has one significant lapse of this: we meet Silhouette, blamed for the Statue of Liberty bombing. Suddenly, Paris and New York might as well be parallel, the same place, the same concerns, the same forces in motion. The opposite of this is represented by the bartender in Hell’s Kitchen, with the mechanical augmentations - when did they work for UNATCO? Did they work for the same branch of UNATCO, or are there other branches? Which terrorists did they fight, and why? It’s an internet analysis meme to claim directors should ‘show, not tell’. This is incorrect: in a life-sized character there is always enough to both show and tell. Bob Page and MJ12 displaced the Illuminati and have achieved near world domination. How did they do it? We aren’t shown. Page owns a company named Versalife, but they are not ubiquitous - there are probably five Versalifes. There’s a magazine in UNATCO HQ in the early parts of the game with a picture of Bob Page on the cover. It doesn’t really tell us anything, nor does it have any use later on. It thoroughly succeeds at letting us know that the world is bigger than this story - but that this story is big in this world. The world in Deus Ex feels large because, for good reason, we are not informed of everything about it.